Classical Notes

How Glenn Gould reinvented Bach

Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (in an undated photo) first recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 1955.
Don Hunstein
Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (in an undated photo) first recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 1955.

Our view of a composer is a mosaic, whose tiles are the insights drawn from hearing dozens, perhaps hundreds, of performances — in concert, through headphones, in our memory. Every musician — every good one, anyway — adds to this composite picture. But almost never does any single artist simply take over the entire perception of a composer’s oeuvre, permanently altering it for both us and future listeners.

One of those very rare instances occurred in 1955, when the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Released early in 1956, the LP exploded on the music world: It wasn’t simply a new take on what was at the time an infrequently heard work, it changed the entire set of expectations with which listeners approached Bach’s keyboard music. Much more Bach would follow, especially when Gould decided, in 1964, to stop performing live and concentrate exclusively on recording. Of course, he played and recorded other composers’ music as well, often with disastrous results (See: Chopin, F., Piano Sonata No. 3). But it was with Bach that his name was always linked, right up until his final, very different recording of the Goldberg Variations, in 1981. He died in 1982.

Gould would have turned 80 this year, and Sony is marking the occasion with “Glenn Gould: The Complete Bach Collection,” a gorgeous box set containing 38 CDs, six DVDs, and a hardcover book containing the original liner notes to all of the original albums. The many hours of music here lay out — in exhaustive, sometimes frustrating, detail — just how Gould reinvented Bach playing in the 20th century.


One of the keys to the 1955 Goldbergs was that they offered an alternative to the Romantic Bach favored by many pianists of the time and the more restrained style heard on the harpsichord. Gould’s Bach was lean and propulsive, dry without sacrificing the piano’s tonal color. It wasn’t just that he could articulate Bach’s contrapuntal textures clearly at previously unimagined speeds; he had a unique way of binding the music’s individual voices into a vibrant, colorful discourse. Above all, Gould unearthed a magnetic energy that made the music swing in a way it simply hadn’t before. Other keyboardists made Bach’s dance forms feel hundreds of years old; Gould imbued them with electricity and gave them a sense that they were cool now.

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Depending on how you count, there are as many as six recordings of the Goldberg Variations in the box set. Besides the 1955 mono recording, there is a rechanneling of that version for stereo; two live accounts from the 1950s, including an especially daring 1959 reading; the 1981 version that would be Gould’s final completed recording; and Bruno Monsaingeon’s film of the recording sessions for that version. Almost all of the other major keyboard works are also included, as well as most of the concertos and the Bach excerpts that were included on Gould’s soundtrack for the 1972 film version of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five.” The DVDs consist largely of television specials about Bach.

One of the pleasures of roaming through all this Gould-Bach is being reminded of the points at which the stereotype of his playing was turned on its head. Yes, his Bach was dry, but the concertos — done with a large string section — have a Wagnerian heft and richness that make them delightfully unfashionable. Yes, it was fast, but his ability to sustain a slow melody against an austere backdrop is one of the mysteries of his art. As much as he did for the cause of Bach on the piano, one of the unlikeliest triumphs is a deeply poignant account of the first nine parts of “The Art of the Fugue,” with Gould at the organ.

Do you need all of this? Perhaps not. Few of the videos add much that is essential to an understanding of Gould. Besides being eccentric, he was a legendary control freak — often to the point of writing his questioners’ inquiries for them — and his efforts to explain Bach are didactic at best, cringe-inducing at worst. An audio interview with Tim Page about the 1981 Goldbergs contains painfully stilted humor. “It was clear he didn’t want anything spontaneous coming up,” Page once said.

Of course, no set of recordings is uniformly excellent. You will disagree with many of Gould’s choices. Some will infuriate you. But I would find it hard to be without any of them. Indeed, through this whole box — disc by disc, movement by movement — I could find few moments that weren’t worth the effort of arguing over in my mind with an imaginary Gould. That is some kind of achievement in our recording-saturated age.


Recently, Gould has become the sacred cow, the one whose influence must now be resisted and overturned. Pierre-Laurent Aimard charged him with living in “an exclusively Glenn Gould world.” Jeremy Denk, in a recent piece in The New Republic, argued that Gould had immortalized not Bach but his own eccentricities, which he grafted onto the music with gleeful perversity. Fellow Canadian Angela Hewitt said something similar: “I find his style too crazy. It’s more about him than about Bach.”

There is merit to these charges, and all three of these superb pianists have played Bach in their own, very different way. The glory of being a listener, though, is that it’s never an either-or situation: You are not required to disclaim Gould’s supposed heresies to enjoy what someone else has to offer. More important, the criticism is unlikely to alter the fact that to a remarkable extent, Gould continues to set the agenda for what we listen for when we hear Bach played on the piano, even when what we hear rejects his legacy completely. His Bach is our Bach. Gould-Bach.

David Weininger can be reached at globe